It’s hard to know what to make of Obama’s foreign policy this early in his presidency, especially when the conceptual categories at our disposal (like “realist” and “idealist”) are so inexact. But I’m perplexed by the notion, floated by the people quoted in this New York Times piece by Peter Baker, that Obama’s foreign policy recalls the realpolitik and realism of the George H.W. Bush administration (my emphasis):
“’Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,’ said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. ‘If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,’ the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.
“He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
“Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: ‘For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.’”
“Realpolitik” and "realism" aren't terms with very precise standard definitions. But their meanings are being stretched beyond all recognition if they don't encompass the core Kissingerian idea that nations will, and should, act to improve their position, according to their own definition of their national interests, relative to the prevailing balance of power. A realist or a practitioner of realpolitik is ready to make mutually advantageous agreements with hostile powers. But he isn’t ready to renounce advantages his nation enjoys under the status quo unilaterally to facilitate a hoped-for future agreement. That certainly wasn’t the approach of the G.W.H. Bush administration or the Ford and Nixon administrations when Henry Kissinger was calling the foreign policy shots.
Yet such unilateral renunciation seems to be a central plank, indeed the central plank, of Obama’s principal foreign policy initiatives. As far as I can tell, Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation policy works off the assumption that it’s morally unreasonable, and therefore practically ineffective, to expect aspiring nuclear powers to even consider ending their nuclear weapons programs unless they already know that the U.S. and Russia are disabling their nuclear arsenals. Similarly, Obama seems committed to the idea that unilateral Israeli concessions from the negotiating baseline in place during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations will move the Palestinians to the negotiation table rather than make them hold out for more unilateral concessions.
These might be perfectly defensible policies but, despite the Kissingerian affectations, they aren’t examples of “realpolitik” or “realism” under any recognizable definition of those terms.